In celebration of May as National Preservation Month, the Linn County Historic Preservation Commission is marking the completion of a series of interpretive centers along the route of the Lincoln Highway through Linn County.
The Linn County Historic Preservation Commission oversaw the creation and installation of eight centers across the county along the Lincoln Highway route. A ninth and final center was dedicated recently at the new Central Fire Station in Cedar Rapids.
Each kiosk highlights a different theme of the highway from lodging, to the Seedling Mile, to Automobile Row on 2nd Avenue in Cedar Rapids.
“The Lincoln Highway is the first national transcontinental auto roadway that was known for years as ‘America’s Main Street’. It’s an important landmark in the history of America and a piece of it is right here in Linn County,” said Dick Thomas, a member of the Linn County Historic Preservation Commission who helped develop the interpretive centers. “Providing uniform markings of the route and small interpretive centers about the history of the route through Linn County is important for the preservation of this piece of history. We thought Historic Preservation Month was the perfect time to let the public know that these interpretive centers are out there and accessible 24 hours a day.”
Lincoln Highway interpretive centers offer trip back in time
Travelers on the former Lincoln Highway as it stretches through Linn County can take a trip back in time.
Photos and information about the first motel in Iowa to welcome African Americans; filling stations where attendants not only pumped gas, but repaired tires, too, and the Hotel Lincoln, where $1 would pay for one night when it opened in 1915, are among the stories told in Lincoln Highway Interpretive Centers in nine different locations.
Eight kiosks were installed over several years, with the ninth and final center dedicated this year at the new Central Fire Station in Cedar Rapids.
"They tell an important story," said Lyell Henry, a member of the Lincoln Highway Association and retired political science professor at Mount Mercy University. "I think most people don't even know about them."
Henry and other Lincoln Highway enthusiasts know, but they want others to learn about this important piece of history, as well. That's where the interpretive centers play a role. Henry and other Lincoln Highway enthusiasts worked under the sponsorship of the Linn County Historic Preservation Commission to create the unique interpretive centers that tell the story of the highway as it relates to Linn County.
The centers are located in Lisbon, Mount Vernon and Marion, at Abbe Creek School Museum on Mount Vernon Road, Squaw Creek Park and four sites in Cedar Rapids.
Marked with the red, white and blue Lincoln Highway logo and topped by a red "roof," the kiosks relay the history behind the first paved transcontinental road in the United States as it passed through Linn County.
"They wanted the quickest way to get from New York to San Francisco," said Dick Thomas, a member of the Linn County Historic Preservation Commission who helped develop the interpretive centers. "Cedar Rapids was one of the largest cities the highway went through."
The Lincoln Highway opened in 1913 and eventually took five routes through Cedar Rapids. Those routes -- originally on First Avenue coming from Marion -- are noted at the Central Fire Station, 713 First Ave. SE, along with images of the city's "Automobile Row" and a postcard from the Hotel Lincoln.
The postcard touts the Lincoln, later renamed the Taft Hotel, as the "first and only hotel in Iowa equipped with automatic sprinklers in every room," a draw used to attract customers, along with the $1 room rates; or $1.50, with bath.
A kiosk off of Mount Vernon Road SE, at Wilder Drive and Lincoln Heights Drive, looks at the history of Motel Sepia, where proprietors Cecil and Evelyn Reed were the first black hotel operators in the state and the first to welcome African American guests, as well as anyone else.
An image on the kiosk notes that one of the remaining remnants of the Lincoln Highway is a small yellow service station on Mount Vernon Road in Cedar Rapids. Since the time the kiosk was erected, the station was demolished and replaced by a modern convenience store.
The fact that those remaining pieces are slipping away attests to the importance of recording and sharing the highway's history, said Van Becker of Cedar Rapids, a director with the national Lincoln Highway Association and past president of the Iowa chapter.
"Every one is different," he said of the interpretive centers. "Every one tells the story of where you're at."
Becker said one of his favorites is the kiosk at the Iowa State Patrol headquarters along 16th Avenue SW in Cedar Rapids, which relays information about the first auto accident and other historical pieces related to highway safety.
He noted that one historic piece of the actual highway, known as the Seedling Mile, was relegated to history after the road was reconstructed in 2002, taking out curves and making other changes for safety reasons.
The mile, between Mount Vernon and Cedar Rapids, was used to demonstrate the benefits of pavement at a time when most roads were mud, Becker said.
Before the Lincoln Highway, not only were there few paved roads, but there were no maps, added Henry.
The opening of the highway changed the way cities developed, where people lived and worked, and how they travel to this day, he said.
"This is the result of a whole century of the use of the automobile," Henry said. "You couldn't do it without the highways and the Lincoln Highway led the way."
Lincoln Highway Interpretive Centers are located at the following sites:
• History Center in Lisbon (102 E main Street)
• Lincoln Way Park in Mount Vernon
• Thomas Park in Marion
• Abbe Creek School Museum on Mount Vernon Road (just northwest of Mount Vernon)
• Squaw Creek Park on the road to the park lodge
• Lincoln Heights at Wilder Drive SE in Cedar Rapids
• Haskell Park at Maple Drive and Johnson Avenue NW in Cedar Rapids
• Iowa State Patrol headquarters at 5400 16th Ave. SW in Cedar Rapids
• Cedar Rapids Central Fire Station, 713 First Ave. SE (located on the 2nd Avenue side of the fire station)
Boy Scouts and Rotary Clubs built eight of the structures, with design work and other portions funded through Linn County, the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation and other funding through the federal Section 106 process, in which damage to historic properties in federally funded projects is offset by projects such as the kiosks.